Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thieves of State

One of our greatest fears as shown in international headlines is terrorism by religious extremists.  For many of us it makes little sense that religious fanatics can get such a strong violent following that the rest of us become paranoid.  We credit ignorance behind it.  Sensible civilized people would never allow themselves to be bamboozled.

Sarah Chayes paints a different picture in "Thieves of State"subtitled "Why Corruption Threatens Global Security."  First she describes her own experience in Afghanistan and later other hot spots where she gradually came to understand different factors at work.  She examined our own Western traditions and current practices to help make sense of it.

The key word is corruption.  Some other words on the same theme are kleptocracy and extraction.  An unconnected citizen cannot get anything done without adding unofficial money to the procedure.  Many people trying to advance their career opportunities need money more than talent.   We frown on foreign cultures where it appears to be normal, but we overlook our own history and our own involvement.

She started out as a reporter for NPR (which I regularly listen to and first heard about this book) covering the Mid East and north Africa, picking up a comfort level with the Arab language.  She volunteered to work with government agencies as she was not satisfied just to write about problems.

In Afghanistan she worked with American diplomats and military leaders and over a period of time came to appreciate that corruption was everywhere and the Afghani citizens at the bottom were very displeased about it.  Some saw the only way to deal with it was to support the religious extremists who offered an alternative.  Sarah convinced me at least, as well as most of the Americans she worked with that corruption was a major problem. But those in authority thought it was more important to combat insurgents than to deal significantly with the corruption.  She worked with Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen and many others.  She worked with some Afghanis she trusted who helped her understand better the underlying pins.

You may have read many people accusing Hamid Karzai as being corrupt and didn't want to believe it.  How could the Americans support him and how did he remain in power?  American politicians and military leaders felt they needed his support more than they needed to clean up his governance.  The Afghan people seem ungrateful and ignorant, but in reality they live with corruption and hypocrisy and it makes them look for alternatives.  The Americans are often seen as enablers.

She then explored other hot spots including Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Uzbekistan and found similar patterns.  Whenever corruption takes hold, the people look for alternatives.  There have always been religious extremists that are mostly ignored except they do provide a more ethical procedure.  In Nigeria large numbers have found the court system too corrupt for their comfort and have been advocating Sharia court, principally because they see it being more just and fair.

Machiavelli is known by those who have not read him for his advice on how to gain and maintain power.  I had not realized he was against corruption, for the practical reason it compromises real power.  The author quoted other Western philosophers, but also one Persian Nizam al-Mulk who described the faults of corruption.  But it seems those in power soon learn to ignore restrictions.

A favorite ploy of dictators heading a corrupt regime is to claim the only other choice is religious fanatics.  Syria is a good example.  Saudi Arabia has to keep a tight lid on those who feel their rulers are not pious enough.

Sarah explores history.   Educated in Ontario, Canada it was ingrained in me that England was most critical in modern democracy.  Without taking from England the author gives some credit to the Dutch.  They were under the rule of Spain and a monarch who declared that he ruled by the divine right of God and did not have to answer to anybody else.  They fought and what we know as the Netherlands emerged with democracy and more important perhaps a sense that rulers are accountable.
They enjoyed two centuries of prosperity and creativity.  Many Dutch particularly those in the unsuccessful part of their rebellion (now Belgium and part of France) fled to England where they were given some protection by Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth, left no children and the throne fell to another divine right believer.  A generation later, Parliament after being asked to support a war against Scotland rebelled and the English Civil War resulted.  After a period of adjustment the English arrived at a better system of accountability, including a constitutional monarchy.

Protestants seemed to be involved in rebellions and Sarah delved deeper into their foundation.  It turned out Martin Luther had many grievances regarding corruption in the Catholic church and both ordinary people and leaders had sympathy.  Some of their early actions could be described as religious extremism, but many others saw them as a solution to corruption.

Corruption all too often seems to follow the discovery of new natural resources such as oil or minerals when those in power can grab a disproportionate share of the new riches.   Extractive refers not only directly to the new resources, but to the underlings who also try to get a piece of the action.

Americans are seen as poor models by many nations.  Some of the mechanisms that enable corruption include privatizing, minimizing regulations (financial and environmental) and allowing corporate payoffs to politicians.  No one was prosecuted for significant acts that led to the Great Recession starting in 2008.  The author points out there are powerful lobbies that affect government policy in defines, energy and health.  Americans have a decades long history of supporting Arab dictators who they knew were corrupt.

One of the forces that helped break down the Soviet Empire was in Poland where the Pope was a rallying point for many dissatisfied with the government. Not so much religious extremism, but surely religion provided an alternative tool.

Solutions are suggested.  Corrupt despots crave legitimacy in such forms as being seen with legitimate politicians so such opportunities should be minimized.  Intelligence needs to be gathered on corruption with the same priority as terrorism.  Diplomats need to seek direct contact with ordinary citizens without intermediaries (of course that is how a spy network is formed, but the author is referring to people who could give a truer picture of what their government does for them).  We do have some leverage in such areas as student and visitor visas highly desired by despots, transparency in payments to foreign leaders.  Corruption tangles up all our good intentions, but once it is realized it is a root cause of terrorism it can be dealt with as a higher priority.

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